Commentary

Boozer at the end of the game, Thibs

Bulls coach sent message about defense, but needs best players at crunch time

Updated: January 6, 2011, 9:23 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Vinny Del Negro will live on in relative infamy, at least as long as ESPN 1000 is in business.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Lou Capozzola/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau said it was matchups, but it seemed clear his benching of Carlos Boozer was intended to send a message.

Del Negro's unforgettable appearance on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" during the 2009-10 season resulted in an often-repeated sound bite, as host Marc Silverman threw in a jab at Del Negro's decision to keep rookie Derrick Rose on the bench at the end of a game.

Silverman said at the end of their interview, as a reminder to Del Negro, "D-Rose at the end of the game, Vinny." Del Negro took offense at the backseat coaching, and thus, radio magic was born.

It's the clip that keeps on giving.

So you have to wonder if Tom Thibodeau will push "ignore" on his phone if the radio station comes a calling this week after he left Carlos Boozer to stew on the bench against the New Jersey Nets.

As of early Thursday morning, Boozer's fourth-quarter benching was the biggest story on a team relatively devoid of drama this season.

On Wednesday in Newark, N.J., Boozer sat and watched the last 14 minutes of the game as the Chicago Bulls fell to the lowly Nets 96-94. Suffice to say, Boozer could have been the difference.

After the game, Thibodeau seemed flustered to explain why Boozer wasn't on the floor, without selling him out for poor defense. Thibodeau settled on the idea that for most of the time, the Nets were playing small and utilizing a zone that required more shooters on the floor, and that Luol Deng could play the "four" in that situation. But that doesn't explain why he wasn't on the floor in the final few minutes.

Obviously, no one bought that reasoning, especially Boozer.

Boozer You got to talk to Thibs about that. That was his decision.

-- Carlos Boozer, on recent benching

"You got to talk to Thibs about that," he told reporters in Newark. "That was his decision."

Boozer, of course, is a decent shooter for a power forward.

The advanced statistics website 82games.com shows (all numbers before the game) that Boozer is a 41 percent shooter (using effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for 3-point shooting), but that number shoots up to 60 percent in "clutch" situations, which is defined as: fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, no more than a five-point differential.

Deng, by comparison, has a 42.6 eFG percentage, which goes down significantly in "clutch" situations. How low? Try 25 percent. And he plays a lot in those situations.

No wonder Deng seems to be hiding at the end of games. On the final possession Wednesday night, he was open for a 3-pointer as Derrick Rose dribbled around looking for a quick shot, but he wasn't seen demanding the ball. Rose hesitated on a drive opportunity and wound up chucking a contested 3.

With one veteran on the bench and the other shying from the moment, all you had was Rose, which is typically enough.

You don't need any newfangled statistics to know that Boozer is the second-best player on the team, and easily the best big man.

But it wasn't about offense, or who the Nets had on the floor. It was about sending a message about playing better defense, and it's clear that Boozer needs to improve in that area.

While he's outscoring his fellow forwards, according to 82games.com, opposing power forwards are shooting 55 percent (per 48 minutes) against Boozer, which makes him a relatively weak link in Thibodeau's defensive scheme.

Nets forward Kris Humphries, better known for dating Kim Kardashian and being a prodigious ballhog in college, had no problems against Boozer. Humphries finished with 20 points on 10-for-15 shooting, adding 11 rebounds, and several dunks. The Nets shot 68 percent in the third quarter, which likely added to Thibodeau's ire.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Lou Capozzola/NBAE/Getty ImagesCarlos Boozer wasn't signed to a lucrative free-agent contract to sit on the bench during crunch time.

The players respect Thibodeau's coaching chops, but you can bet Boozer's benching fell on mostly deaf ears, because the power forward's offensive talents outweigh his defensive lapses.

"Yeah, we were surprised," Rose told reporters. "But we're not going to try to coach. We're going to try to go out there and do our jobs, and that's to play.

"We're just going to leave all the subbing and everything up to [Thibodeau]."

Boozer is a veteran, and he spent most of his career playing for Jerry Sloan, so he's not in need of tough coaching. And given that the Bulls lost, it's not like this move will resonate too greatly.

But it won't be a distraction either. Thibodeau has established his reputation among the Bulls as a defensive taskmaster, and by cracking down on a top player, I assume he's hoping his message will trickle down the bench.

It's not like Thibodeau doesn't have the Bulls playing stout defense, so my only concern, I guess, is that he will look for perfection in January, which is a tricky task. Chicago is currently second in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 43 percent, just behind Miami at 42.3. Boston is third (43.3) and Orlando fifth (43.7).

But, I'd rather have a coach who demands effort from his star players than one who acquiesces to the talent.

In any event, the Nets loss itself was almost expected. Late arrival, back-to-back, playing in a lifeless gym. I can't imagine anyone expected the Bulls to cruise to another blowout.

I figured they would bounce back from a dismal third quarter, and they did. The Nets stole the win, so to speak, when Sasha Vujacic scored the winning basket on a broken play.

The games against the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are merely appetizers to Saturday's main course, a home matchup against the Boston Celtics. A week later, the Bulls play the Miami Heat for the first time.

Several times this season, we've pointed to a big matchup for the Bulls as a milestone, and against the Western Conference teams the Bulls have succeeded more often than not, with the home win over the Lakers the biggest highlight.

But Chicago doesn't have a big win over an Eastern Conference power yet. The Bulls are 0-2 against the Celtics and New York Knicks and got drilled in their only regular-season meeting with the Orlando Magic.

But I imagine we won't see Boozer on the pine when it really matters this weekend, and then again in the spring. If we do, Thibodeau should get the VDN treatment from the radio hosts.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

ALSO SEE